Nicholas Sparks writes love stories not romance novels

abranch@newsobserver.comFebruary 14, 2013 

Author Nicholas Sparks.

COURTESY OF NINA SUBIN

Author Nicholas Sparks’ “Safe Haven” is not your typical Valentine’s Day, ‘feel-good’ love story.

Yet it is Sparks’ hallmark realism that carries the emotional punch, as characters Katie (Julianne Hough) and Alex (Josh Duhamel) seek to move on, while their pasts are crashing in on them – or through the front door.

“Safe Haven,” the Southport-based film adaptation of Sparks’ 2010 love-story thriller is the author’s eighth novel adapted for Hollywood – all of which have been set in Sparks’ eastern North Carolina home base.

Since “The Notebook” in 1996, the N.C. resident has used 18 books and novels to spread small-town North Carolina into 45 languages and 80 million copies worldwide.

On the phone, Nicholas Sparks talked about the movie’s message and how his small-town love stories were influenced by his life – and vice versa.

Q: Some writers and viewers don’t like book-to-film adaptations, but you’ve said you think yours have turned out pretty well. If you had to rank, where would “Safe Haven” lie on your list?

Oh, toward the top. I don’t think there is any question about that. “Safe Haven,” they did such a terrific job in the film. It’s, I think, everything that a good story should be and more. If you like the films that have been adapted from my novels – “The Notebook,” “A Walk to Remember,” “Dear John,” “The Last Song,” “Nights in Rodanthe” – you are getting all of the things that you liked, right? You are getting great acting, great cinematography, you are getting the atmosphere of what it is like to be in North Carolina. So you are getting everything that you want – and yet “Safe Haven” has more. It has just a really edge-of-your-seat thriller element, and of course, by the end, I think viewers will be shocked.

Q: “Safe Haven’s” element of danger/violence is new to your writing. Why domestic abuse? What do you want viewers and readers – on Valentine’s Day – to take away from “Safe Haven”?

Years ago I wrote a novel called “The Guardian,” and it did have a strong element of danger in it as well. ... The dangerous element was a person, but it was more of a stranger, almost a stalker. So years later when I decided to explore the concept of danger again, I didn’t want to do what I had already done before. So I decided to make it a dangerous person that the character knew.

The domestic abuse flowed logically from that, but the real key there was to tell the story in an original way, to tell the story in a way that “Sleeping with the Enemy” didn’t, that “The Burning Bed” didn’t, or any number of novels didn’t tell it, to make an old story seem fresh and new again.

The message there is people get second chances in life. If you want any message to take away on Valentine’s Day, your past need not find you and second chances are possible. I think both of those are wonderful messages, because I think everybody, quite frankly, will appreciate hearing them.

Q: You use family names in your books, including Lexie (your daughter’s name) in this one. How does your family feel about that? Do you create the character and then the family name, or the other way around?

Either way. Sometimes the character name came first, like Landon. Then other times, the daughters’ names came first, like Lexie and Savannah. It really depends. I’ve got to choose names from somewhere. I tend to pick, at least here and there, people that I know, people that I work with, my family, whoever hasn’t had a name lately. You need a lot of names after 18 books – you’re probably talking about 150 names. Family names are just as good as anyone else’s. And they’re fine, but it is kind of fun.

Q: In your novels, you imagine all kinds of difficult situations that couples encounter and how they work through them. How has this affected your ability to handle conflict in your own marriage?

Eh, I’ll tell you what: Most of these female characters I create are modeled in some small ways from my wife, to be quite frank. So how they react is very much like my wife reacts – and so how the guys react sometimes is the way I react. Sometimes you might get mad, sometimes you might get frustrated, but in a general rule, if you care for the person, you certainly try not to say anything you are going to regret and you never become violent.

Q: Your novels vividly describe life in North Carolina at the turn of the 21st century. What do you want future generations to take away from this time in North Carolina history?

As busy as life can be and as fast as technology is changing, relationships are still built on the quality of time you spend with someone, the type of people that they are, the places you go, the things you do. North Carolina is wonderful in that the entire eastern part of the state, with the exception of Wilmington, is small towns. I don’t see that changing for the next 50 years, to be quite frank. I don’t know if there is anything in particular about the beginning of the 21st century or frankly the beginning of the 20th century. I don’t think New Bern has grown or shrunk since 1900. It’s just life in small Southern towns. If they want to take anything away from it, maybe that, it might seem small, people might talk slow, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t as real as anyone else.

Q: You once said the difference between a love story and a romance is that “love stories must use universal characters and settings.” What did you mean by that?

“Universal” means you feel as if they are real. You feel like you can know them. I don’t write stories about astronauts or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or millionaires or movie stars. These are stories of everyday people put into extraordinary events that are also very real in ordinary people’s lives: accidents, a past you want to get away from, a husband that got violent.

These are stories where, when people sit down to watch them in the theater, they feel as if they know someone like Katie on screen, and they feel as if they know someone like Alex. That’s what draws them in. They relate to these characters, they begin to root for these characters and by the end they are moving in sync with the emotions of these characters. You need to do all of these things well to have a love story that works.

Q: There is a canoe scene in “Safe Haven” that could have been taken out of “The Notebook” movie. What is significant about that setting for you?

If you live in eastern North Carolina and you are living in a place like Southport, or you are living in New Bern, there’s no shows to go to, there’s no mountains, there’s no touring Broadway. There might be a maritime museum or something like that. So what do people do? They spend time on porches, they go out on their boats, they go out on a canoe. That’s what you do. You go fishing. It’s just part and parcel with life in the eastern part of this state, and to not reflect that would be inaccurate. It’s one of the reasons why I tend to write a lot of stories with the military. Again, it’s ubiquitous to that region. To ignore it would be to not represent that region accurately.

Q: What is it like being an author watching your book made into a movie?

It’s a lot of fun for me. I have the chance to see a story through someone else’s eyes. To me, that’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s like seeing “The Lion King” on your television watching the DVD and then going to Broadway and seeing it acted out in the theater. Different medium; no, they are not exactly the same, but it is those differences that you appreciate because they make it original in that new medium. So for me, watching these films has been wonderful.

Q: What do you think about how the film handled the characters’ internal conflict, especially in the first half of the story? Some things that seemed to be key moments in the book took only seconds on screen.

One of the great things about that film is it’s a very patient, realistic, yet deeply passionate love story between adults. It’s a story about second chances: two wounded people slowly but surely beginning to find solace in each other. If you rush that along, you lose the magic of that. So I thought the film did a wonderful job balancing the love story element, the relationship element, with the incredible thriller aspect of the film.

Q: Your next book is scheduled to be released in September. You haven’t released the name yet. What could you tell me about it, like what North Carolina town is it set in?

Oh boy! That would be exciting for me to tell you. I can’t tell you anything about the new book. I can’t even tell you the title yet. The reason is: I would, but I don’t know the title yet. I don’t generally talk about the novels or say anything about them until after they are sold in Hollywood. But I can say it’s fantastic.

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